On a quiet Mississippi road, one evening in June 1964, a gang of Ku Klux Klansmen attacked three workers canvassing with the Congress of Racial Equality. James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, all under 25, had volunteered their summers to register African Americans throughout Mississippi to vote after decades of suppression by Jim Crow laws. The next morning, police discovered their burned-out car in a ditch; the three young civil rights advocates were reported missing. Five weeks later, their mutilated bodies were discovered 15 feet underground on a nearby farm.
Years after the Freedom Summer murders, voter registration issues still loom large in America: one in four eligible citizens is not registered to vote; one in eight voter registrations are significantly inaccurate; and racial minorities and the poor are significantly less likely to be registered than white, financially secure Americans. From 2011 to 2014, nine states passed laws that made it harder for citizens to register to vote. Four states passed laws that restricted voter registration drives, even though research shows African Americans and Hispanics are twice as likely to register through a drive than whites. Three states passed laws which require registrants to provide documentary proof of citizenship. According to a 2006 study by the Brennan Center, seven percent of Americans do not have such proof readily available.
In an attempt to modernize the voting process and limit voter suppression, 10 state legislatures (and the D.C. City Council) have implemented variations of an Automatic Voter Registration system. Automatic voter registration, as defined by the Brennan Institute, registers all “eligible citizens who interact with government agencies,” unless they opt out.
The AVR was created to address the same problem that Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner lost their lives trying to remedy: limited voter registration in states with histories of voter suppression. By registering eligible voters on first contact, the AVR prevents potential voter intimidation and makes the process of registration more accessible.
These bills have garnered widespread bipartisan support, succeeding in liberal strongholds like California and Connecticut as well as conservative bastions like Georgia and West Virginia. In early 2016, then-President Barack Obama even called AVR the potential “new norm across America.” Today, of the 40 states yet to approve AVR, 32 are considering AVR bills in 2017.
AVR shifts the voter registration process from an “opt-in” to an “opt-out” system. When an eligible citizen gives information to the government—by renewing a driver’s license, registering for classes at a public university, etc.—they will be automatically registered to vote, with their registration information accessible by officials across their entire state, unless they opt out.
During the 2016 election, Oregon became the first state to implement the AVR. The Oregon Motor Vote Program added more than 272,000 Oregonians to the voter rolls, including 98,000 first-time voters (comprising nearly nine percent of the state’s registered voters). Oregon’s 2016 electorate was more representative of the state’s population than ever before. It was younger, more rural, of lower-income, and more ethnically diverse, thus more closely aligning with Oregon’s actual demographics. Interestingly, the new online system also made voter rolls more accurate and current, making the Oregonian voting system easier, cheaper, and more secure.
Lawmakers in states considering an AVR will have to grapple with potential drawbacks of the program. Although the AVR was not intended to be a partisan bill, Democrats have been its main supporters. Many conservative lawmakers have supported the AVR, but some argue that if the AVR were to pass in their state, voter rolls would be flooded by ineligible voters and people who don’t want to be registered. Additionally, they argue that the AVR improperly shifts responsibility for registration from the individual to the government, adding another expenditure to government balance sheets.
Yet, research has shown that AVR actually protects the electorate and limits instances of fraudulent registration. With the passage of legislation to limit voters, legislators revert American democracy back into the dredges of its shameful and regrettable past. With an AVR, states instead have the opportunity to modernize American democracy; to propel it into a more free, fair, and promising future.
For this law to pass in states with the worst records of voter suppression, the conversation must persist across the country. Eventually, AVR will be the standard in more states than not, forcing states yet to have taken action to do so. The civil rights advocates Chaney, Goodman, and Schrewerner understood that for positive change to happen, positive action must prompt it. Today, the continued passage of state AVR will prove whether or not lawmakers understand the same axiom.
Image Credit: Flickr / Joe Shlabotnik